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Skinning: An Uphill Battle

Years ago, you might occasionally see some hardy soul snowshoeing up a ski trail. But now, with a variety of alpine bindings that allow heels to lift free, skiers wanting a workout can affix synthetic skins to the underside of their skis, climb up any trail they choose, then ski down. "It's a fabulous way to get exercise," says David Cleaves of Killington, who says he tries to skin up Pico two to three times a week.

But the increasing uphill traffic is creating safety concerns at many resorts and forcing them  to rethink how and if they should allow it.  

At The Outdoor Gear Exchange, a Burlington retailer that specializes in backcountry ski equipment, buyer Joshua Stephens says they sell more than a thousand pairs of climbing skins a season. And he says that number grows every year. 

Store employee Jake Evans says he uses his all the time. “At Smugglers Notch, Jay Peak, sometimes at Stowe. It’s what I love to do.”

But the men admit not every ski resort welcomes uphill travelers, even when those skinning up are pass holders. “It really seems to run the gamut,” says Joshua Stephens. “Mad River is very encouraging to people going up hill - their neighbor, right next door, Sugarbush has been just the opposite to the whole scene. It’s been very aggressively not wanting people to skin a lot of the time, especially when the resort is open.”

Stephens says for years, most resorts just looked the other way, since people climbing tended to be locals who knew the mountain. But as the popularity of skinning and snowshoeing up trails has increased, it’s become harder for resorts to ignore. Stephens says more and more he’s hearing about climbers being asked to leave.

“What we have been encouraging is the resorts to come up with a policy,” says Stephens. “Even if the policy is no, we don’t want uphill travel. So be it, that’s fine. What we want to know is what are the rules. Make some rules.” 

Adam Howard, Editor of Backcountry Magazine, thinks most resorts want to accommodate skinners, but he says their safety concerns are real. “The pinch point has been after hours at night. When you’ve got 15, 20, 30, 40 people skinning up in the dark with head lamps, with dogs, going up to the top of the mountain and hanging out for a while, when there’s mountain ops activity whether its snowmaking, snow machining to service snow guns and certainly grooming.”

Resort officials at Killington say they see several dozen people skinning up Killington and nearby Pico every day. 

Operations Manager Jeff Temple stands in a parking lot filled with large grooming tractors. “When these machines are on steep parts of the mountain, they’re like spiders,” he says, “tethered to long, thick cables.” Depending on where the groomer drives, the cables can be buried in the snow or can snap up at any time, he says, cutting an unsuspecting night-time skier in two.

While he says they haven’t had any accidents, they have had some near misses. “We’ve actually had tractor drivers say they want to stop grooming and we’ve seen this at Pico, depending on where we’re grooming for elevation,” says Temple. “Because a place where people want to skin may be a place we have to go that night for operations.”

“And the visibility when it’s snowing and pristine for skinning can be very, very difficult on the drivers,” he says. “They have windshield wipers going and they’re watching their blades and their implements and all of a sudden they might have some skinners come right by who aren’t being respectful, who come right up by the tracks and it could be catastrophic if there was a collision between a skinner and a tractor.”

To make sure that sort of thing doesn’t happen, Killington has become one of the first ski resorts in Vermont to create a formalized skinning policy with designated routes and rules. “That makes sure that we’re all on the same page for education and the dos and don’ts so it’s successful for all involved,” says Temple.

He says those who already own a season pass will be asked to sign up for a season skinning pass at no charge. He says there may be a small handling fee for those without a regular pass - but skinners with passes will be welcome 24-7.

While he says some skiers may balk at having to skin up certain trails, Temple believes that's where the partnership will come in with local skiers, who he believes want to make this program work.

“We could have taken a hard line and just said no,” says Temple. “Kind of like back a number of years ago when ski areas said no to snowboarding. But I feel like we have the resources here and the know-how to integrate it into our operations and make it successful and the time felt right to address it,” says Temple.

Mike Snyder, Commissioner of Vermont’s Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation, which leases land to seven state ski resorts, (Bromley, Killington, Stowe, Smugglers Notch, Okemo, Burke, Jay Peak) sees backcountry skiing and skinning as economic opportunities for the state that should be responsibly promoted.  

He says he’s been working with the seven resorts on the skinning issue and he hopes more will follow Killington’s lead. “My hope would not necessarily be a statewide policy,” says Snyder, “but all of our statewide partners would see the benefits and figure out a policy that works for them with their terrain and their clientele.”